In this MEETING series Sophie and Geert meet up with artists and creative people supporting Sea Shepherd.
Sophie van der Stap is a Dutch author and Geert Vons is the Sea Shepherd Art Director.

While talking with Cristina, our previous conversation in this series echoes strongly in the background. We discussed the limitations of our language underwater, where we encounter a language beyond the spoken word.

Cristina Zenato, a shark behaviorist, has a very unique way of sharing space and time with the sharks inhabiting the waters surrounding the island she calls home, Grand Bahama. Listening to her talking about her communication skills under water, opens a new perspective on language. She’s capable of expressing herself in multiple languages. She speaks four languages fluently, and it seems like we can add a fifth: shark.

“Hi Sophie, hi Geert, can you hear me? The line seems to be cracking up. Let me get my earphones.”

Sophie met Cristina a few years back, when she was working on a story about a girl and a shark. She contacted Cristina through one of her social media platforms and was invited to come over. Little did she know about the woman, except for the part that the girl felt more at ease below the ocean’s surface than above, in the world of people, like the fictional character of her story.

Sophie: “Cristina took me on my first shark dive and freed me from my conditioned fear of these animals. The shark dive and Cristina’s work brought to the surface the shortcoming of language: is our perception of reality conditioned by language?

Looking at the sea, we are facing the fact that underwater we are deprived from our primary form of communication. In this wordless world, our own spoken language isn’t just limited: it’s useless. This might be the reason why being underwater is so appealing: it’s a world we can not shape to our own likings and comfort. We can only adapt and in doing so become part of it until we – and our little lives – dissolve, evaporate. If linguists are make believers of the theory that there’s no reality outside the languages we speak, the sea is a make believer of the theory that the spoken word is merely a language and, indeed, a very limited one. Cristina juggles daily inside this paradox, experiencing more connection underwater in a wordless world than on land, through the spoken word.

Cristina: “I’ve come from studying languages and it was always my fascination to be able to speak many languages in order to communicate the best I could. Studying languages allowed me to realise sometimes you don’t need words, you sometimes need to adapt. For me it was life changing when I became involved with the deaf community. At the time I was already very much involved with sharks. It closed the circle of what I realised languages were. I stepped away from the illusion that we need to speak other peoples language to understand them. We don’t. What I needed were small gestures or words and an ability to adapt to the language the other person speaks.”

“I’ll give you an example. I was always the favourite dive guide that this Japanese group of women wanted to be on the boat with. They didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Japanese. We needed a deeper understanding of communication and language in general, in order to comprehend each other. I learned that I could actually transform my knowledge of language into something I could use. Later on in life I learned that this goes even further. That I could use my understanding of language and communication in my interaction with sharks too. Language comes in all sorts of manifestations. The final clue came when I got introduced into the deaf community. They have a full language, it’s just not spoken. A lot of people judge animals by standards of the human language and behaviour: “The intelligence of this animal is like a three year old, because it can only do this or that.” Even our dogs understand our language better than we understand theirs. They do have a language of their own. Sometimes languages limit our comprehension of what surrounds us and what people are. What is the world – people, animals and nature – trying to say? Some people call me the Shark Whisperer, which as Sophie knows I don’t feel identified with at all. If anything, I am a Shark Listener.”

Cristina Zenato

Geert: “Do deaf people respond differently to the underwater world and to sharks  – and the sharks to them – than people who rely so much on the spoken word?”
Cristina: “The sharks don’t make a distinction, but the deaf certainly take in the underwater world very differently. The deaf community is more attentive, more focused, also more attracted by the surrounding environment. Most divers become a little bit distracted and unfocused when they suddenly can’t hear, even a little lost, while for the deaf their situation doesn’t change. Hence its much easier to interact with them underwater than it is with a hearing diver. The deaf are actually also more attentive to us. They can read us so much better because they work on facial expression.”

Geert:“Could you say that deaf people underwater hear better?”
Cristina: “Yes, they are the best listeners I’ve ever worked with. Above and under the surface.”
Sophie: “Because there’s no distraction.”
Cristina: “Exactly. Underwater you have to engage your other senses, which the non-hearing are experts in. When you take them under water they are completely engaged because they are way better equipped than we are.”

Geert: “Are humans the only species that are incapable of communicating on a different level and therefore don’t take other communication forms seriously? Is this purely a human trait you think?”
Cristina: “Yes. The hearing tend to ridicule other forms of language, whether it’s sign language or the language of animals because we just don’t understand it. I think people do so because of a fear of difference.”

Geert: “Maybe there’s something in the human mind that doesn’t want to communicate on a direct level. Something evasive.”
Cristina: “We don’t know what we don’t know. I grew up in a Mediterranean family, not just eating, but devouring fish. My mom didn’t do anything wrong. She did what she was taught. But it’s time to question things, to crawl out of our comfort zone and to not hide anymore behind what we have been taught.”

Geert: “Most of the issues we’re dealing with today have to do with people unwilling to step away from what they know, out of their comfort zone.”
Cristina: “Correct. Another example is plastic. The solution is not recycling but a total cease of production. But we just don’t want to change our lifestyle. Cauliflower rice in a plastic bag. Seriously?”

Geert: “Is there a connection between your frustrations about our conduct and the attraction to the underwater world?”
Cristina: “Absolutely. The underwater world has no labels. There’s a different notion of time. Time doesn’t tick under water. Therefore the underwater world allows me to see myself for who I really am, stripped from all the labels and needs. Under water I feel more accepted than I ever feel on the surface.”
Sophie: “Again because of the absence of spoken language? No labels, no interpretations.”
Cristina: “I hadn’t made that connection yet but yes. All there is, is the true essence.”

Sophie: “This thought directly ties into the story I wanted to write about a girl and a shark, even before I met Cristina. And it’s probably also the reason why we hit it off. I wanted to describe a place where our kind of language does not exist, where thoughts dissolve and where we are stripped down to our naked essence, derived from, or liberated from our cultured identities. Dipping into Cristina’s world at sea made me view language completely differently and even though it will always be my first method to grasp life, I’ve come to understand that it’s not as rational as we’ve come to think, or as we choose it to be.”

Cristina: “I have difficulty reading most people. And therefore I’m quite a mistrustful person. Maybe because I myself wear my heart on my sleeve. When I’m happy or sad, people see that I’m happy or sad. Yes, I’m Italian. But when I’m underwater I can read people. There’s no hiding. I see through their body language whether they’re scared or not and not rarely what holds them back in life. Sometimes I joke that I’m an underwater psychologist. A shark course is not just a shark course. It opens people up to see life in a different matter.”

Geert: “It almost sounds spiritual.”
Cristina: “It is. I made some of my best friendships in a shark course. They came as clients and walked away as friends. The shark course is more about the person than about the sharks. The sharks are always the same, but the people change. In a way you can call me an interpreter. I interpret the underwater world, the underwater languages and I interpret those in a way that people can actually relate to and understand. The interpreter is the bridge between the two. Like an interpreter between the non-hearing and the hearing, putting sign language into words, I am that interpreter of the underwater world into the “land” world, through all sorts of media: my social media posts, my pictures, my stories.”

Sophie: “Is our language too limited to express the interaction you’ve experienced with sharks?”
Cristina: “It certainly is easier for me to communicate underwater, whether it’s with people or with sharks, than on land. It feels more natural underwater to express myself sometimes than in the spoken word. A good example are emails.

Geert: “Is the underwater world telling us that we are overvaluing our human language and undervaluing our other senses?”
Cristina: “The senses that are not trained. Diving with sharks certainly demands the use of our less developed senses. This ties into the artistic interpretation of life that goes far beyond the spoken word. In artists these senses are often more developed.”

Geert: “Language itself can become almost a substance: you can sculpt it, play with it.”
Into new matter?, I wonder, listening to Geert and Cristina. But what about the other language? The non-spoken one. Can we sculpt it, and moreover, do we need to learn to speak it, or is it a language we innately speak, and maybe forgot about, so heavily indoctrinated by the spoken language?”

Cristina: “I had to learn to listen to the sharks first before being able to interpret it. The innate part was the desire to be able to. In order to be able to listen, you have to empty yourself, let go of your convictions in order to let things in.”
Geert: “Like in each creative process, we need to be empty first. We think of creativity as something special, but actually, it’s something natural.”
Cristina: “Kids are creative until their creativity gets boxed away.”
Sophie: “So it helps to be away from our conditioned language in order to be creative?”
Cristina: “In a way yes, but then again you express your creativity through that language.”
Sophie: “True. It’s not the first time I encounter this paradox…”

Geert: “Back to you and your creativity and activism. Do you believe one person can make a difference?”
Cristina: “Removing one hook at the time from one shark, some say it doesn’t make a difference but it does. Every shark saved makes a difference. Also, it changes the perception people have of sharks as they get to see them as vulnerable creatures. There certainly is the power of one.”

We have no doubt about that, speaking to Cristina in the spoken word about a language that goes far beyond the spoken word, that by lack of a better word we now choose to call shark. Not only our behaviour but also the language we speak are subject to our personal experience.